CBP MVSS border surveillance system: Another border program mired in delays

Five major contracts for programs to improve or replace existing border surveillance technology have been awarded to date to eight different prime contractors. However, CBP delays in this contract acquisition and management process, in some cases years after the contracts were initially awarded, have severely curtailed contractors from getting beyond the initial stages of production of these surveillance systems and bring these programs to completion. CBP’s business practices may thus not only be sabotaging our intended national immigration and security policies, but also placing at greater risk the lives of law enforcement officers, border residents, and all border crossers.

The CBP recently announced that the first of these five programs, the Integrated Fixed Tower (IFT) program, finally has been completed and is now in operation. The IFT RFP was originally published on 21 May 2012, and awarded to Elbit Fort Worth for $145 million. The easiest of the surveillance programs to accomplish, given the lessons presumably learned from the failure of the SBInet program from 2006 to 2011, the CBP has also announced that upgrades have already been ordered for IFT (Robert Lee Maril, “Fixing failed SBInet: Contract delays, quality issues at CBP,” HSNW, 9 February 2016.)

The other four major CBP surveillance technology contracts are: the Mobile Surveillance Capabilities (MSC), the Remote Video Surveillance Systems (RVSS), the Ultra-Light Aircraft Detection (ULAD) Systems, and the Mobile Video Surveillance Systems (MVSS). Major contractors include ICX Platforms Corporation, Telephonics Corporation, SRC Tec Inc., Management Services Group Inc., EFW, Mistral Inc., and Tactical Micro. 

But for the failed SBInet program, the four remaining major technological surveillance systems could already have been in the capable hands of CBP agents and officers along the Mexican border. SBInet is the unsuccessful attempt to provide a “virtual” wall to support the bricks and mortar of the existing border wall stretching 650 miles, the supplemental fencing, the vehicle barriers, and other equipment strategically placed. Amid high expectations but rarely obtained objectives, Boeing served as the prime contractor for SBInet at a cost to date of $1.389 billion (Robert Lee Maril,  “The real cost of CBP’s failed SBInet is $1.389 billion,” HSNW, 7 March 2016).   

From 2006 to 2010, CBP’s Mark Borkowski and staff were responsible for the contract acquisition and management oversight of Boeing, Inc. as it built the virtual border wall. Since 2011 Borkowski, who after the failure of the SBInet program was swiftly promoted to the position of CBP Assistant Commissioner and Chief Acquisition Officer at CBP Office of Technology Innovation and Acquisition (OTIA), has awarded approximately $689 million to the five separate border surveillance technology programs.

In addition to the IFT program, the MSC program , contracted for $146 million million, was also burdened by a variety of contract delays. These included contract protests to the GAO and problematic contract oversight (Robert Lee Maril, “CBP MSC vehicle contracts to Telephonic appear problematic,” HSNW, 11 May 2016 ).

It now appears, according to government documents, that the $100 million MVSS surveillance technology program also faces similar program delays amid questionable management acquisition decisions. The objective of MVSS units, primarily utilized at night, is to supplement the IFT system. As such, the MVSS is, “…the preferred solution in certain urban, rural, and remote areas that are difficult to access and monitor with other systems” (USAOPPS, Mobile Video Surveillance System, posted 31 July 2014). The total MVSS contract award was budgeted at $100 million.

Borkowski’s OTIA issued the RFP for the MVSS program on 30 April 2013, three years after he left the SBInet project. As of 3 September 2016, Tactical Micro, one of the awardees (contract number HSBP1016D00002), has only received a contract obligation of $595,818 out of the $50 million it was originally awarded.

CBP also awarded $50 million to Mistral Inc (contract number HSBP1014D00011). To date, Mistral has received a contract obligation of $1,506,116. Looked at another way, three years and several months after CBP announced the RFP, contract obligations to date to produce the MVSS are 1 percent of Tactical Micro’s total award for $50 million, and 3 percent of Mistral’s $50 million award. These contract obligations strongly suggest that little to no substantive progress has been achieved on either MVSS contract.

Three years and four months since the MVSS contract was announced, and five years since the official demise of the SBInet program, the MVSS program appears in fact to be barely underway. Why?

A partial answer may be found in GAO reports and Congressional testimony in 2014, 2015, and 2016, focusing upon three of the OTIA surveillance technology programs, the IFT, RVSS, and MSC. In March 2014, the GAO reported to Congress there were a number of best practices standards that CBP failed to meet in the contract acquisition and management process overseeing the IFT, RVSS, and MSC programs. (A CBP representative failed to respond to a series of questions about the MVSS contract delays and relevant decisions in contract acquisition and management.)  

In rating the selection and management of CBP IFT program in 2014, the GAO’s reports that its comprehensive measurement of the entire program to date was only “partially met.” In specific, GAO detailed, “…174 activities (or 24 percent of detail  activities) that did not have an assigned program work breakdown structure,”, along with, “53 duplicate milestones that are not mapped to the work breakdown structure.”   

Both the RVSS and MSC programs, in fact, received the same comprehensive rating as the IFT program of “partially met”, again focusing on, among other deficits, not maintaining a “…a baseline schedule” (United States Government Accountability Office, Arizona Border Surveillance Technology Plan: Additional Actions Needed to Strengthen Management and Assess Effectiveness, GAO-14-368, 12 March 2014).

CBP’s OTIA also failed to meet these same best practices in its oversight of the MVSS contract program. The RFP for the MVSS program, issued by CBP’s OTIA on 30 April 2013 was, according to the GAO, to be judged on, “…three factors (technical, past performance, and price)” with weighted scores assigned to each factor. Ten different corporations provided proposals for the MVSS by the closing date of 13 June 2013. OTIA, in other words, took a full two years after Napolitano pulled the plug on the SBInet program to get around to publishing the RFP.

On 31 July 2014, thirteen months after it received all ten proposals, OTIA awarded the contract to Mistral Inc.  It took OTIA more than a year to conduct the selection process of a contractor.

In spite of these needless delays, this is where the MVSS contract acquisition and management process appears to fall completely apart. Two corporations that did not receive the MVSS contract, Tactical Micro and Strongwatch Corporation, filed a protest to the GAO, “…challenging the propriety of the award to Mistral”. In response, Borkowski’s OTIA communicated to the GAO that, “…it would establish a new competitive range, conduct discussions, request and evaluate final proposal revisions,and make a new source selection decision” (emphasis added). In other words, CBP, when challenged by two contractors, restarted the contract acquisition process by, in effect, reissuing a new RFP.

On 3vJune 2015, approximately two years after the original RFP for the MVSS program, OTIA announced it was going to notify not only Mistral and Tactical Micro, but as well two other unnamed corporations of a second proposal process for their submission. The deadline for this new round of submissions was 29 June 2015. OTIA then finally announced it had accepted Tactical Micro’s new proposal on 26 October 2015. 

Mistral, however, filed a protest to the GAO on 20 November 2015. In return GAO denied Mistral’s protest against Tactical Micro in its decision of 29 February 2016. In the end, Mistral and Tactical Micro ended up splitting the $100 million budget for the MVSS border surveillance system.

Equally noteworthy, however, is that OTIA’s MVSS contract acquisition process took three years and four months just to award the contract to two qualified contractors. Much of this time was wasted by OTIA in writing the original RFP, then the long selection process of awardees, followed by what amounted to a second round of RFPs. The protest to GAO caused a final delay.  

Borkowski, Randolph Alles, Executive Assistant Commissioner Air and Marine Operations, and Ronald Vitiello, Acting Chief U.S. Border Patrol gave joint testimony to the House’s Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security on 24 May 2016.

In their testimony the purpose and utility of the MVSS system to CBP agents along the Mexican border in this testimony to Congress was carefully described in detail. (Joint Testimony of Randolph Alles, Mark Borkowski, and Ronald Vitiello, “Border security Gadgets, Gizmos, and Information: Using Technology to Increase Situational Awareness and Operation Control,” U.S. House of Representatives, Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Border and Maritime Security, 24 June 2016).

What appears to be egregiously absent in this same testimony is any mention of either the long delays in CBP contract acquisition which have greatly affected the progress of the $100 million MVSS program, the current status of the MVSS program, or estimations of when the MVSS program might actually be completed so it could be utilized by agents patrolling the line.

In his testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee’s border and Maritime Security Subcommittee on 24 May 2016, Borkowski acknowledges GAO’s on-going critical reports of his border surveillance technology program delays. “We’ve failed on schedule.” “I’m trying to attack that” (Mark Rockwell, “CBP working on border tech acquisition processes,” FCW (25 May 2016).

The Congressional testimony given by Borkowski et al. outlines at its end what appears to be a massive reorganization of CBP’s contract acquisition and management system. This reorg is referred to under the subheading of “Acquisition Strategy and Realignment.”

Rebecca Gambler, Director of Homeland Security and Justice Issues at GAO, told Congress that she is still not completely satisfied with the progress on the remaining four major CBP border surveillance technology programs. She warns that CBP still lacks an integrated master schedule for contract management. At the same time, she testified that, to the credit of the OTIA, “…CBP has made progress in implementing the Arizona Border Surveillance Plan.”

While CBP has indeed made some “progress” and should be credited for such, these modest successes dwindle in comparison to a needlessly lengthy contract acquisition and management system. It would appear that  Borkowski and CBP leadership simply cannot accomplish their stated surveillance program objectives within a reasonable business time frame. 

The clock has been ticking since 2006, since the start up of SBInet. Still CBP has very little to show for all its efforts and Congressional testimony regarding SBInet and these five surveillance programs. Total costs to date for these programs alone now stand, according to government documents, at $1.57 billion. 

The business side of CBP is crucial to any immigration policy. CBP agents and officers along the Mexican border finally are benefiting from the much-delayed delivery of the IFT surveillance technology program. The current status of the RVSS and ULAD surveillance technology programs has not been ascertained. However, after many needless OTIA delays and problematic contract management decisions, the MVSS program along with MSC program both now appear to be dead in the water. 

Robert Lee Maril, a professor of Sociology at East Carolina University, is the author of The Fence: National Security, Public Safety, and Illegal Immigration along the U.S.-Mexico Border. He blogs at leemaril.com.